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KIH #30 – It’s showtime!

The show must go on. True enough. But first it’s gotta kick off. Before it does, there’s homework to be done. In this instalment of keeping it honest, we’re on about how manufacturers might get the most from their tradeshow attendance. First off, why go at all? To gain new dealers/distributors; to meet with existing ones; to collect potential feedback about desired features, new models or company policies; and to secure press coverage. It’s about making sales, improving one’s business, lining up reviews and ending up in show reports. If a show is open to consumers, show reports can extend to blog/forum mentions and photos; plus there’s the additional objective of interfacing with actual end users.

Darko: For readers not fully versed in the subtle differences between audio shows: Munich’s first day is trade/press only and then open to one and all for the remaining three. CES’s high end audio exhibits are (mostly) tucked away in the upper floors of the Venetian Hotel and remains steadfastly exclusive to trade/press throughout its four day run. The way I see it, Munich is slowly replacing CES as the primary place for manufacturers to meet with (potential) worldwide distributors. T.H.E Newport Beach and RMAF are very different kettles of fish – their main purpose is to accommodate meetings and demos for the (predominantly US) press and consumers. Although, last year’s RMAF channelled a stronger B2B vibe than in years past. From a personal point of view, international shows are (almost) the only place I get to properly chew the fat with reviewer colleagues, to trade stories, to discuss trends and share opinions on who to check out.

Let’s start with communication. It’s basically about informing people about where you’ll be and what you’ll show, beforehand, so you become a must-see destination. Today’s shows can be enormous. Sensory overload kicks in quickly. So does confusion. Helping attendees plan ahead by ending up on their lists is a big advantage. Such email or even snail mail announcements should reach their recipients about 7-10 days prior. Whilst most such solicitations traditionally shy away from specifics, why should yours? The hardest pull comes from showing a photo or two of what you’ll have; plus relevant specs and pricing. It’s perfectly fine to call such news embargoed until the first day of the show. But why merely tease when you can drive the hook in nice and deep, then yank it? Press and important distributors are getting hammered by pre-show announcements. You’re competing with everyone and their grandmother. Stand out with juicy photos, not a lame “come and see us, we’ve got a surprise”. Yawn!

Darko: Agreed – embargoed or not, a full detailing including pricing and key talking points (or specifications) is crucial. It brings journalists up to speed and ready with questions before they cross the threshold. Two standout PR performers who give appropriate notice of what’s new and what’s not – but without the misplaced anticipation ambiguity – are Bryan Stanton (Aurender, AURALiC, Mytek, Pass Labs) and Bill Leebens (Antipodes Audio, PS Audio), both of whom follow up by being present at their clients’ side once the show kicks off.

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RMAF 2015: Bill Leebens [right] and Stereophile’s Herb Reichert [left].
Related to this is being absolutely certain to have your new stuff online no later than the day when the show opens. Someone left behind at the factory can flick the switch to activate the prepped web page. That’s important. Attendees might start blogging a few minutes after the event opens. They should have follow-up access to any data they missed in situ. Plus, imagine a punter hitting up your website to learn more about an early blog sighting or show report mention only to find absolutely nothing about it. What a missed opportunity.

Darko: Even if the exhibitor isn’t ready with final details on the new machine, especially when teasing prototypes whose specs and feature set may change, a post discussing said (planned) show attendance with the where, when and what at least goes some way to acknowledging any potential web visitors inquisitiveness.

On your site’s news and Facebook pages, present a full listing (with pricing and key specs) for your entire demo system/s so press members compiling a report can fill in holes in their own notes. Fail to do so and you might get skipped in reportage; be covered incompletely or with errors. To avoid turning show goers who ask for carry-on materials into bag ladies and knuckle draggers, have your information available also on USB sticks or memory cards. Catalogues, brochures and tear sheets quickly load up bags and lengthen arms. Alternately and particularly for press members who type notes on iPads, you might email them a PDF whilst they’re still in the room.

Darko: KEF’s Blade-shaped USB keys given out to select folk at Munich High-End in 2014 and containing info on their then new Reference series was a masterstroke; my post celebrating this ingenuity reportedly had (some disgruntled) dealers across the world demanding their own. You know you’ve won when people cry out for the delivery container irrespective of the info contained therein. However, such out-of-box thinking is rare. I find it somewhat perplexing that in a modern age of hyper-connectivity, show-goers get a takeaway tear sheet at best. In most cases, one leaves empty handed. Some rooms offer very little in the way of information – but why? Glossy brochures intended for dealer promo don’t cut it either.

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Kimber at RMAF ’15: a possible standard practice for ALL?

I can understand an exhibitor’s reticence to putting up a full show system detailing on their Facebook page. From a journalistic point of view, would that not lead to an increase in same-same review coverage where hit and run photos streams are augmented by a simple copy/paste? Perhaps the middle ground is as you suggest: the room host qualifies the visiting journalist before forwarding him/her an email with the system particulars. This also eliminates the possibility of mistakes being made by journalists writing show reports whilst still on the road and often battling jetlag. A misplaced zero can cause agony for a manufacturer…until corrected which could up to 48 hours if that same journalist is headed home on a long haul flight.

To assure good photo ops, remember that the average attendee will neither be a professional photographer nor arrive with a tripod and external flash. Most in fact use cell phones or compact single-lens cameras set to auto. Dim and/or strangely coloured mood lighting is utterly idiotic and counterproductive. You’re not setting up a disco or nightclub. If your room is poorly lit, don’t complain if the majority of photos of it are equally poorly exposed. Just as counterproductive are open curtains behind equipment if they cause glare and over exposure from incoming sunlight; and not having your new stuff also on static display to instead enforce constant photo-shooting jams in front of people who try to have a listen. Some rooms get so busy and crammed that people in the hallway looking in decide to pass right by. Now it helps to have a static display of your new models in the hallway which they at least can photograph and look at. If that’s not allowed, have a poster of it outside your room. Ideally you also have such posters near the show venue entrance which clearly indicates your room number to direct some traffic.

Darko: Isn’t it ironic that this commentator’s two picks for best sound at CES this year were also the worst lit? One Audio pulled the curtains open trick, all but obliterating an ability to take half decent shots of their speakers (black drivers in a piano black-finished box), and the DeVore Fidelity room whose light was lower than a snake’s ankles.

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ONE Audio’s open curtain approach at CES 2016.

Almost all light issues can be solved with a directional flash shoe-mounted to a DSLR. That’s fine if you’re a member of a team of reporters among whom show coverage can be sub-divided but less ideal for the solo journalist attempting to maintain the broadest overview possible. It’s a handheld camera or nowt for this fella. And that means low-lit rooms run the risk of not being covered, especially if one leaves photo editing until seated back in the office. At CES 2015, I was forced to visit several rooms up to three times before I managed to extract half-decent shot – then from a Fujifilm X100S with external flash but since benched in favour of a Sony R100 MK3 whose bendable pop-up flash accommodates ceiling bounce. This isn’t about one camera being better suited to purpose than another but a reflection of how many rooms mistakenly opt for low lighting and therefore run the very real risk of being passed over, especially if blurry pics aren’t reshot before show the show wraps. Emotiva and its blue LED light show puncturing the darkness are one of the worst serial offenders and I might have bypassed the Bel Canto room at CES 2016 were it not for the iPhone 6S+’s stellar inbuilt video camera. Show exhibitors don’t have to do anything. However, to maximise chances of the best possible show coverage, consideration should given to a BYO lighting rig – IKEA offer numerous affordable and portable options.

To be avoided at all costs are showing up with virgin gear and/or unproven hardware combinations. Many shows have grown so large that visitors intent on covering it all only have one crack per room. There’s no time to be back for seconds. If the first impression goes awry, that’s what they take away, talk and write about. Given how costly attendance has become for many venues, it’s popular to split fees with joint exhibitors. A speaker maker, electronics maker, cable maker and rack maker might go in for a four-way split. Whilst that nets a 75% fiscal save, it can also be a total sonic and social disaster. Not only may the hardware be mismatched, so might the personnel, their personalities, presentation styles and taste in music. If you can’t do your own thing with your personal system; or show with proven partners; you might be far better off running a small passive display on a table in some open space or hallway.

Darko: Matching hitherto untested speakers to an unknown room can also be fraught with risk. I recall one (unnamed) amplifier manufacturer who effectively lost the first two days of his Munich investment to speakers that didn’t play well in an Atrium space with glass front wall. “No bass – none!” ran the complaint. My first drop-in coincided with a silent system whilst the speakers were tested in various new positions (including diagonal). Stressful.

In fact, you might be better off with that, period. Running an active exhibit morphs you into an amateur disk jockey unless you go on complete auto pilot with a curated playlist. As a sound host, you’re not available to conduct actual business behind the scenes. Remember, you’re there to do business, not throw a party. If you do decide to go active, you need at minimum two people – one to work the room, the other to handle business. This requires a small area separate from the display space. Even a single desk with a few chairs behind a curtain will suffice. Forget to set up such an area and kiss doing serious business good-bye. Ideally you have a third person just in charge to greet people, take business cards or scan badges and hand out materials. You must return home with a solid list of contacts to follow up on!

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RHA reps meet with an international distributor at CES 2016.

Darko: Whilst Munich and CES offer (some)subdivided spaces, business talk and proper demos are all but mutually exclusive events at consumer shows like RMAF and Newport . The latter rightfully expect reasonable listening conditions whereas dealers and journos need to talk. Stepping out into the hallway to chat with a rep is often the only way I can get the full skinny on what’s being shown on the other side of the now closed door.

Enter closed-door demos. If you’re a famous brand with built-in draw already, you can get away with people lining up at your door waiting patiently to get in. If you’re new, you categorically cannot afford to confront important visitors with a closed door. They may simply not have the time to return. Even if they did, they might not remember where to find you. So close doors at your own risk. Ditto off-boarding. Established manufacturers can get away with circumventing the main venue to set up shop elsewhere. If you’re new, you cannot. The main venue is where you must be to stand any chance at decent traffic. Otherwise you’re wasting your money, period!

Now we get to scheduled press reveals. Expecting the press to be at a given exhibit at a given time presupposes that they have nothing better to do just then. Unless you’re Wilson Audio introducing a new speaker, that’s a big if. It’s far more effective to do a pre-show email blitz. If you’re a show goer like me, you start at one end of the venue and slowly work your way to the other (or from a hotel’s top floor down floor by floor.) What you won’t do is rush from wherever you find yourself to make a 14:00 presentation way over on the other end, then turn back to where you left off not to miss anything, then chase another bloody 16:00 press junket which once again occurs far away from where you are right then.

Darko: Unless one is keen on being first to web with a report, press events are often the worst place to get clued in on a new product’s specifics or shoot decent photos. Best avoid the press hordes and drop in after the event has run its course for a one-on-one with the designer and space aplenty around the hardware. And yet I still try to attend as many events as I can. One day I’ll follow my own advice.

Exhibitors ought to have the names and phone numbers of show management on them. Often neighbouring exhibits get guilty of sound pollution. They play so loud and/or have their sub dialled up too high to disturb your own space with obnoxious boom-boom. If they prove uncooperative, contact show management. Repeat offenders who exceed mutually workable or contractually stipulated max SPL can get shut down. On the topic of shit happens—it does–be prepared for equipment failures and delivery mishaps. At the Warsaw 2015 show, a speaker manufacturer forgot to bring a replacement driver because none had ever failed before. When his did develop a scratchy voice-coil throat in transit, he could neither fix nor replace it. That shut down his entire exhibit for the duration. He might as well have stayed home. Be sure to have with you a basic repair kit and the necessary parts. Also, have your factory stand by with fully broken-in replacements that are ready to hustle it out via overnight express should it be necessary.

Busy rooms with people waiting to talk to someone often run the risk of having them leave before you get to them all. Here it’s imperative to have an eagle-eyed PR person catch escapees before they vanish; follow them into the hallway to take care of their needs; and possibly interrupt the main presenter if they have a VIP on their hands. To give waiting folks burnt out on listening to music something to do, a factory-tour video on endless laptop loop can fill a gap. Check out EveAnna Manley’s for a sample. If you have novel tech to talk about, a similar video presentation feeding perhaps a few headphones can serve the same purpose.

Darko: Perhaps important to qualify ‘VIP’ here lest readers think we journalists are harbouring ideas above our station. I certainly don’t consider myself any more or less important than any other room visitor. I’ve heard horror stories of journalists demanding hot seats, others simply taking over with a commanding voice and a wave of USB stick or CD. The arrogance of the minority reflects poorly on ALL engaged in the profession. The exhibitor might see things differently however – they may want to impress a journalist or potential distributor and afford ’em special consideration. Who is and isn’t a VIP stems from the exhibitor’s point of view. Like the music that gets spun, it’s entirely the exhibitor’s call. After all, they’re paying for the room so can do as they please. 

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RMAF 2015: TONEAudio’s Jeff Dorgay chats with Roon’s Enno Vandermeer, Rob Darling.

Back to comm protocol: well before you arrive at the show, you ought to already have organized the post-show mass email. Time it to hit either on the last day of the show or the first day afterwards. This follow-up email to your pre-show contact list (of folks you hoped to see), should thank those who attended; fill in those who couldn’t visit, about exactly what they missed; and provide a URL link to a webpage, PDF or DropBox folder with full information and 300dpi photos. When some magazines run real-time show coverage or publish within days afterwards, the timing of this follow-up email is crucial. Don’t expect to be contacted with info requests. Provide this information unsolicited and in time to enhance your chances. Comprehensive show-report mentions are free advertising of the best sort. Manage their likelihood. As you’ll appreciate, pre/post work related to PR relies on a mailing list. Assembling one months prior is a vital bit of homework which many sadly overlook.

Darko: If a mailout with system specifics isn’t possible during the show, afterwards should be a trivial issue. Reality says otherwise. I get emails aplenty in advance of show attendance and – unless I report erroneous information – very few routine follow ups; Bill Leebens being the exception.

If you decide on an active exhibit, what music to play becomes crucial. Here it’s important to remember sensory overload and room-to-room repetitiveness. It hits all show goers sooner than later. And like in the movies which have gone past half-time to approach the third act, SPL tend to ratchet up as each show day progresses. Those manning the demos are often oblivious to this as their hearing becomes badly desensitized a few hours into it. It’s good practice to note the volume setting which equalled satisfactory level before the whole madness kicked off, then stick to those. The perhaps most effective way to demonstrate a system is to run controlled demos with 2-min. samples which were carefully chosen to highlight certain qualities which the presenter announces between tracks. Playing full especially long tracks risks boring those who don’t like that music; and might drive them out of the room altogether. Anyone serious however can and will stomach a 2-min. excerpt if he/she knows that something very different will follow. Running such cyclical demos also helps to turn the room over on a regular basis. This lets newcomers have a seat and prevents hoggers from overstaying their welcome.
Whether or not to play music requests divides opinion for all the obvious reasons. Suffice it to say that it’s your time and money, hence your decision about what best serves your purposes. That said, attendees too are there on their own nickel and time dime. Presenting them with hardware that’s not broken in, wired up out of phase, which overloads the room with boomy bass, excess loudness or otherwise suffers from negligent setup or poor planning is very disrespectful. Never mind that it is completely counterproductive to making a good impression and presenting yourself as a hifi professional.

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ELAC Americas’ Andrew Jones holds court at CES 2016.

Darko: An active demo requires extra personnel that many of the bigger players bring in spades but so few do it well. The two standouts on the circuit presently are Andrew Jones (formerly of TAD/Pioneer and now with ELAC Americas) and Johan Coorg of KEF. Their demos feature a variety of cuts that rarely adhere to the true and tested but still fully engage gathered attendees. Pivotal to listener engagement are Messrs Jones and Coorg’s introductions that explains why each cut was chosen and/or what to listen for. 

Common mistakes are bringing speakers too big for the room; lack of acoustic treatments; lack of power filtering or voltage stabilization; and poor chairing. As we all know, the stereo illusion relies on symmetry. Sitting too far off-axis interferes. So might be standing up to have visitors well above the tweeter axis; or being too close to a wall. It’s an understandable impulse to wish to demo to crowds. Sonically however, such an approach is invariably compromised when really, there are only a few good seats which image properly and don’t suffer peaks or suck-outs based on room geometry. If you favour making a good sonic impression—why else would you opt for an active exhibit in the first place?—you’re better off restricting available seating to those spots which actually work. Other common mistakes include not taking short breaks to open the window/door to let in some fresh air; letting people talk whilst others try to listen; and worst of all, having presenters chat amongst themselves. The latter remains totally oblivious to walk-ins and animates such uncouth disrespect and/or disinterest in being there as to be a slap in the faces of those who spent their time and money to see you. If you bother to show, you must be ‘on’ and professional for the entire duration. Anything less is amateurish at best; or ought to be reserved for after-hour shindigs.

Headphone exhibits really can take care of themselves with a properly curated playlist that’s correctly tagged. If you’ve got non-mainstream music goodies, sort them also by genre to help attendees find what best suits them. It’s not about quantity but about a nicely varied selection that spans the gamut. Now we’re back at static displays for everyone else. That’s not merely about raw cost though a simple table or small open space tends to be cheaper than the big rooms. Static exhibits bypass the entirely Quixotic enterprise of trying to make good sound in hotel rooms or conference centres. All serious visitors understand that things nearly invariably sound a lot better in their own shops or rooms. Shows aren’t about the pursuit of sonic trophies. ‘Best of show’ buys you a coffee and bragging rights in future adverts. Shows are about making contact and exchanging information. The serious stuff happens afterwards or behind the scenes. It does not happen in the listening seats. By design, static exhibits filter out the casual hifi groupies who collect soundbytes hoping to listen to their own tracks at raunchy volumes they can’t get away with at home. Static exhibits focus on interfacing with serious parties. Here one can explain things in detail; judge intent; write actual business; set up future appointments like shipping a demo to a prospective dealer or organizing a review loaner. Static exhibits done right can lead their makers to write more actual business than the poor guys in the posh rooms who pay big to play non-stop DJs.

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Dan Clark’s (MrSpeakers) demo tablet as seen at RMAF ’15.

Darko: Headphone demos are more intimate and so details matter more. Attendees go hands on with a system that might also include PC, Mac or tablet as source. Untagged music here, especially absent cover art, is a no-no, especially when file names indicate music has obviously come from “unofficial” sources. Both mis-steps can really take the shine off even the most well laid out table and fully-branded backdrop. Exhibitors could aim for a 100 songs of various genres – no need for full albums. For those supplying their own Internet hotspot, Tidal or Spotify can serve to fill in the blanks. That said, with auditions taking place behind headphones, there’s no excuse (that I can see) for headphone exhibitors NOT accommodating attendee-supplied selections. 

As you see, show success is inextricably tied to proper pre/post homework. It also requires good people and networking skills. All that goes well beyond getting your shiny new hardware ready just in the nick of time. Just showing up hoping for the best nearly predictably ends up being a huge waste of time, effort and money; or delivers less than it could have. But because the show must go on, many will go on just like that. Too bad, really…

This now concludes my abstract Jazz quartet of back-to back industry features for the industry, on how to review; how to maximize the free advertising intrinsic to having a website; how to have a better ‘getting reviewed’ experience; and today’s how to maximize one’s tradeshow exhibit success.

Darko: You can read more of Srajan’s audio world coverage over at his own 6moons.com.

Written by Srajan Ebaen

Srajan Ebaen

Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to DAR pro bono.

5 Comments

  1. Don’t forget AXPONA in my hometown! I understand it’s reputation/importance as an audio event is on the rise. Comments?

    • The only comment I have is that I’ve never been to AXPONA, hence its omission from this post.

      • Well you’ll be happy you made the trip. Worldclass city. I was watching the Australian Open this evening and Melbourne actually reminded me of Chicago. AXPONA would love to have you.

        As an aside, I read your Chord Mojo review and it was excellent. If I wanted to use the line stage and connect to my main rig (either the preamp or directly to the power amp) what cable is used to do so? Would it be the 3.5mm on one end and RCA’s on the other? Thanks in advance for answering my dumb question!

  2. Than you, Kind Sir — For the nice mention of Bill & myself in the Jan. 28th article on trade shows written by Srajan and yourself:
    Both Bill & I have learned to hang out in hallways and lobbies as its more productive, grabbing the attention of a passing journalist & filing them in on the hot news — rather than standing still in a client’s demo room waiting for a member of the press to come in. We catch more “fish” that way!

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